Hollywood, Littleton, and us

By Rob Long

© 1999 by National Review, Inc., 215 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016. Reprinted by permission.

September 1999 – Jerry Springer, the Bill Clinton of talk-show hosts, had a problem. His show was taking flak for its violent content – a guest’s two “secret lovers” would suddenly explode into flying fists, say, or a guest’s wife and transvestite boyfriend would rocket out of their chairs, slapping and kicking – and after the Littleton massacre it must have seemed time to cool it.

Cool it he did, replacing a brace of racy episodes with older, tamer reruns. His ratings promptly took a dive. Vindicated, he is back to his old tricks and can now answer his pious critics with a simple, “I am giving the people what they want.”

Bill Clinton, the Jerry Springer of presidents, had a problem. His administration was taking flak for its slavish devotion to Hollywood – the Lincoln Bedroom has accommodated more sleeping movie stars than the technical-awards presentation at the Oscars – and in the wake of Littleton, amid concerns about media violence, he needed to show that he is not in the pocket of an interest group.

Show it he did. He directed the Department of Justice to investigate the film industry’s efforts to market movies to teenagers, and he called on the industry to “police” itself. He also attended a $2 million fundraiser at the home of a Hollywood mogul. Thus, like Jerry, he has done his part without undue strain.

Everyone, ultimately, will do his part. The people who are paid to fret about the First Amendment and censorship will do so, in congressional committees and on op-ed pages. (The people who are paid to fret about the Second Amendment will do likewise, but that’s another story.) There will almost certainly be the passage of some kind of pointless legislation. And this could not be a serious social issue, and this could not be fin de siecle America, without an incoherent televised debate in which an Entertainment Industry Smoothie will stop the discussion in its tracks by looking doe-eyed at the camera and asking, “Is Saving Private Ryan violent? You bet! Is Schindler’s List violent? Yes, Ted, it is. But do I want my kids to know about World War II and the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust? Yes, Ted, I do. And if that makes me a bad parent, then so be it!” At that point, a Noted Shrink will chime in with a “help your kids manage their anger” jag, and a Christian Media Critic will try to smile warmly (just like the media consultant told him to) and hold his hands out, palms up (just like the media consultant told him to), and say, “Ted, all we’re asking for is information. Parents need information about the movies and shows and video games their children are watching.” Pretty soon, that’ll be over and Friends will be on.

What no one will talk about is the impossibility of regulating the hundreds – soon, maybe, thousands – of channels piped into television sets all over the country. What no one will talk about is that broadcast television – the only form of TV over which the federal government has any real leverage, via the FCC licensing process – is remarkably free of violent content, preferring, on the whole, to concentrate on smutty and crass sexual innuendo. Cable television, especially on the premium channels, makes for a lucrative market in both softcore pornography and nihilistic violence, but cable is a paid-for service. You get it only if you pay for it – about 50 bucks a month for the basic package, where I live – so regulating the content is not only a constitutional can of worms, it’s also kind of strange, like demanding that the government allow you to buy the fat-laden mayonnaise but prevent you from eating it once you get home. (Though that concept gets increasingly less strange as the years unfold. See, for instance, the tobacco debate.)

Focusing on the “violence” in an episode of Jerry Springer is a perfect indication of how wrongheaded most media critics are. A couple of drag queens flailing away at each other, or two guys swinging wide-of-the-mark fists over a plump, unattractive girl, is hardly the root cause of the current wave of adolescent freak-outs. The really sick thing about the Springer show isn’t the fisticuffs. It’s the cruelty: People ambush their girlfriends and boyfriends (sometimes both in the same show) with revelations and confessions designed to destroy them. It’s hard to keep in mind, what with the screaming and the air-pumping, but some poor schmo is always left out of the joke. Some real person is sitting in a television studio getting his feelings trampled on in the most callous way, usually fighting back tears while the tormentor wears a kind of half-proud, half-embarrassed smile. Even drag queens and hoochie girls deserve better.

Rather than worry about the effect a few Jerry Springer melees have on our kids, we should be appalled by the show’s cheerful, audience-pleasing cruelty. What, I wonder, do kids make of that?

Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the two boys from Littleton who gleefully murdered their schoolmates last spring, kicked off our latest national discussion on media violence, but it’s clear that this discussion will eventually run the talkers hoarse. Like one of those college-dorm debates, this one will double back on itself a few times (“Hey, isn’t the news violent?”) before it peters out. The huge gush of entertainment product that floods into our houses every day is impossible to sort through, label, rate, and censor. Besides, as Jerry (and Bill) discovered, people like their crappy entertainment culture, it makes a whole lot of money, and with a whole lot of money you can buy a very nice president.

And while one finger points at Hollywood, the other points at Smith & Wesson. Gun control may or may not be a good thing, and it is certainly true, as gun-control advocates rotely and routinely tell us, that if Klebold and Harris hadn’t had guns, they would not have been able to shoot their fellow students. But where do we place the blame for the evil deeds of other scary teens? The girl in New Jersey who secretly gave birth during her senior prom, dumped the baby in the trash, and returned to her salad? The boy who raped and murdered a little girl in a Nevada casino bathroom while his buddy stood by?

You don’t need a gun to be a sociopathic monster. It helps, of course, but all that’s really necessary is the ability to tune out the suffering of another person. What the recent incidents of evil teen behavior have in common is the easy way these kids did just that. Who knows if the girl in New Jersey played violent video games? Who knows if the boy who raped the girl in the casino had seen Natural Born Killers? The average adolescent watches between three and four hours of television a day. He is responsible, almost single-handedly, for the most financially successful box-office year in Hollywood history. He is the backbone of the cash machine known as AOL. He knows how to tune in almost anything projected on a two dimensional screen, and tune out almost everything real. The default setting on late-model adolescents is “entertain me.”

It doesn’t matter so much what, precisely, is on the screen. The very act of watching television encourages a kind of detached, passive, slack-jawed energy. It’s easy to slip into an I-am-watching-myself-on-television trance, to drift away from the here and now, to freeze out the suffering of your schoolmates or the face of your newborn baby, if you’ve had enough practice flipping the remote control. Lots of violent movies and endless hours of video-game slaughter might help tip the transition into monsterhood, just as a gun within arm’s reach offers itself up as a handy score-settler; but it is the day-in-day-out practice of anesthetized viewership that teaches the mind how to flick the “off” switch.

Michael Medved, the author and radio host, often asks his listeners to engage in a little thought experiment. Imagine, he says, that your favorite cultural critic (Bill Bennett, Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, insert-favorite-scold-here) has taken control of the nation’s televisions. Every single offering has been vetted and sanitized by your hero. Would you still care if your kid watched 20 hours a week?

The traditional “family hour” of television programming, the 7-to-9 P.M. safe haven, fell out of favor years ago. But assuming that family-hour programming returned to all television channels – broadcast and cable – would that be such a good thing? Does the fact that content is free of violence and sex mean it’s okay to watch 18 hours of it a week? It is a strange era indeed when the concept of “family hour” refers not to time spent with family but to time spent with television.

In the microscopic sifting of the teenage lives and torments of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two weird details stick out. The first is that on that terrible morning one of their friends noticed they were absent from bowling class. A quick and easy way to check your sanity, reader, is to gauge your reaction to the phrase “bowling class.” What used to be something one did for fun – that is, outside the realm of required courses, like Pre-Calculus and African-American Poetry – has now been nested inside the general curriculum. A culture that develops a way to sub-contract out Finding Something Mindless and Physical for the Kids to Do to the school system will also sub-contract out “family hour” to the broadcast networks, education to a computer attached to a phone line, and moral development to a giant purple dinosaur. And with those things taken care of, why not kick back and watch Home Improvement?

The second strange detail in the lives of Harris and Klebold is that, in a corner of Dylan’s room, amid the violent props and sicko publications, was a small refrigerator. For convenient snacking, one supposes. It was a birthday gift, according to the New York Times, from Dylan’s parents. So why bother leaving the room at all? Why not just stay in there, flipping through the channels and clicking through the Net, feeding when necessary from the handy icebox? Even if you wanted to, oh, bowl or something, why bother? You did that already in third period, right before “Voices and Visions: The History of the Land from the Native American Perspective.”

How odd that the richest, healthiest, most blessed generation in the history of the world – a generation with no grim reality to escape from – buries itself alive in escapist entertainment. And how odd that the generation that raised them – itself the richest, healthiest, most blessed generation but one – can’t muster the energy to turn off the set.

The entertainment industry is the hand that feeds me, of course, so far be it from me even to nip lightly on its knuckle. Those of us who make our monthly nut writing, directing, producing, and broadcasting televised entertainment are always being exhorted to “police” ourselves, as if somehow kids who watched 20 hours of “good, safe” entertainment a week would be less creepy and screwed up than kids who watched 20 hours of whatever swill is on.

Television, like alcohol and tobacco, is supposed to be diverting and entertaining in reasonable quantities. We don’t control the dosage, and just as most parents would not justify allowing their children to smoke and drink because “they’re only smoking Merit Lights and only drinking White Zinfandel,” perhaps our current favorite easy fix (“100 Hours of Kid-Friendly Television – It’s the Law!”) is equally silly.

Hogarth’s famous engraving Gin Lane portrays a London alley packed with reeling drunkards. Eyes like slits, mouths open, the wasted citizens lean against posts and languish in the gutters. Babies tumble from their mothers’ arms and into the street. Dirty children crouch against buildings swigging booze. It’s Family Hour, 18thcentury-London-style, but with gin and ale instead of video games and the WB Network. All in all, gin is more healthful. And you can keep ice cubes and limes in the refrigerator in your kid’s room.  undefined